This is a painful and indeed shameful story of the ways in which the poor were directly victimized by city leaders in San Antonio.
The world is fortunate to have benefited from the extraordinary community activist leadership of Ernesto Cortes and Oralia Garza de Cortes who have dedicated their lives to helping the poor. I remain deeply inspired and encouraged by all that they have done. May God continue to bless this work greatly.
The San Antonio COPS Revolution By Roberto Vazquez, LaRed Latina News Network Posted on March 14, 2005, Printed on March 14, 2005 In her San Antonio Express-News column of 6/6/04, Jan Jarboe Russel, describes very graphically the 1974 confrontation of COPS Representatives and then Mayor Charles Becker. "On a muggy Thursday night in August 1974, about 500 members of Communities Organized for Public Service converged in the City Council chamber and demanded to be heard. Now Father Albert Benavides and Beatrice Gallego stood at the microphone and insisted (Mayor) Charles Becker and the City Council hear them out. I will never forget the anger etched like granite on Benavides' face. The priest stood there, shaking his fists high in the air, looking like the prophet Jeremiah." What was not known back then was that Father Benavides, along with the other COPS representatives had been quietly organizing, and painstakingly researching the issues for a whole year before they decided to approach city officials. It turned out that COPS representatives were much better informed, and more knowledgeable about San Antonio socio-economic and political issues then were the Mayor, Councilmen, and City Manager. Even that famous 1974, confrontation between COPS and Charles Becker/City Council, was carefully choreographed and orchestrated beforehand by COPS. By the time COPS representatives decided to approach San Antonio city officials, they already had rehearsed political strategies, tactics, along with contingency plans to cover almost any conceivable scenario or counter action posed by the opposition. In other words, the city government establishment had no chance against COPS. However, city officials did not know that. They were caught totally by surprise. Through their intensive research, COPS members found out that city officials had for decades been diverting city funds from the inner city to newly developed subdivisions on the North Side. In effect city officials were stealing from the poor West and South side neighborhoods to provide funds for developers in the affluent North Side suburbs. In a 1978 article, Moises Sandoval, a Alicia Patterson Foundation award winner, notes, "Officials whom they had held in awe had for years "re-programmed" to the suburbs bond monies earmarked for inner city projects such as critically needed storm sewers. Meanwhile, persons were drowning when heavy rains flooded low-lying barrios. Even as COPS was beginning to fasten an eagle eye on the City Council's activities, the city voted to buy a golf course from a developer with federal Community Development Act funds which were supposed to be spent for the improvement of poor neighborhoods. (COPS action led to a veto of the purchase of federal authorities.) Developers were receiving millions of taxpayers' money in subsidies for water main installations in subdivisions both inside and outside the city limits while central city neighborhoods had to make do with two-inch mains which made washing dishes and taking a shower activities that could not go on at the same time in one house." Jan Jarboe clearly describes this issue in her 6/6/04 Express-News column about the legendary confrontation of COPS and Mayor Charles Becker. "Father Albert Benavides spoke directly to (Mayor) Charles Becker and told him that even though many drainage projects for the West Side had been authorized by the city in bond issues, they never were built. Becker turned to City Manager Sam Granata and asked if the priest was telling the truth. Granata indicated that it was true. Then Becker asked how long the drainage projects for the West Side had been planned. "About 40 years," Granata responded." Forty years is a long time to wait for services. It's possible that if COPS had not intervened then, the West Side might still be waiting for the drainage projects today.In 1988, Henry Cisneros, former San Antonio Mayor was quoted as saying,
"I can say unequivocally, COPS has fundamentally altered the moral tone and the political and physical face of San Antonio." These words ring true today as they did back then. Since 1973, through the present, COPS/Metro Alliance, have managed to dramatically transform and diversify electoral politics in San Antonio, and Bexar County. This community organization has also managed to generate over one billion dollars in city/county, state, and federal public funds for capital and infrastructure improvements for the West and South sides of San Antonio. These projects included a community college, drainage systems, new housing and housing rehabilitation, public parks, health clinics, public libraries and a host of other related urban improvements. One may wonder how COPS became so effective in social and political engineering in San Antonio. Some say it's because they are a faith-based organization inspired by God, the scriptures, the Prophets and the Holy Spirit. I personally think there may be some truth to this notion. However, I believe the main reason COPS has been so successful is because they are a grass-roots organization that works to build long term relationships among members based on family values, religious and social traditions, as well as good old "All American" Democratic ideals and values. Mark Warren, in "Connecting People to Politics," quotes Reverend Mike Haney as saying "COPS is a way of implementing the gospel's call to justice that it imposes on us. This happens in a couple of ways: dealing with issues themselves; and COPS calls us to work as a collective, to find strength in community, and that's a gospel call itself." Reverend Rosendo Urrabazo, in the other hand notes "The purpose of COPS is not issues; the purpose of COPS is leadership formation." In a Key Note speech "Building a Just Society Through Ethical Leadership," in 2001 at the University of Texas,Ernie Cortez, current Southwest Regional Director of the IAF said, "That's the role of a broad-based organization, to mentor, to guide, to teach, to teach people to act on their own interests. That's the work that COPS is involved in, that's the work that Valley Interfaith is involved in, that's the work that all the IAF organizations are involved in." He continues, "It's important for people who don't have any power to learn that they can get power by organizing, to get power by beginning to negotiate, to get power by developing broad-based institutions." In a December 1999 article, Cheryl Dahle, senior writer at Fast Company, quotes Ernie Cortez, "We organize people not just around issues, but around their values. The issues fade, and people lose interest in them. But what they really care about remains: family, dignity, justice, and hope. We need power to protect what we value." Cortez, also explains, "The politics that we talk about is the politics of the Greeks -- the politics of negotiation and deliberation and struggle, in which people engage in confrontation and compromise. My goal is to reclaim that political tradition." The COPS organizational philosophy and strategies may be complex and at times esoteric in nature, but everyone agrees that their political tactics have been highly effective in bringing people together to participate in the American Democratic process. To understand the magnitude of COPS accomplishments in the last 30 years, one has to understand the socio-economic and political situation of the Mexican American community in San Antonio during the 60s and early 70s. Since the early 50s the GGL,(Good Government League) comprised of wealthy Anglo ranchers and businessmen from the North Side had almost full control of electoral politics in San Antonio. The GGL had the wealth, clout and influence, to arbitrarily select as well as generate the votes to elect City Councilmen in San Antonio. Harry Boyte, of the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, notes," In the early seventies, San Antonio still had a "colonial" air where a small group of businessmen, most of whom belonged to the segregated Texas Cavalier Country Club, held sway. City council members were elected at large, which meant that Mexican and African American candidates could almost never raise funds to compete." In a 1988 Commonwealth article, Henry Cisneros, who holds masters and doctoral degrees from Harvard, noted that in the late 60s San Antonio was "so poor that Peace Corps volunteers were trained in its barrios (West and South sides) to simulate the conditions they would face in Latin America. Thousands of Hispanics and black families lived in colonias, with common-wall, shotgun houses built around public sanitation facilities with outdoor toilets. The barrios had no sidewalks or paved streets, no drainage system or flood control. Every spring brought flooding; families were driven from their homes; children walked to school through mud sloughs. In the shadow of downtown San Antonio lurked a stateside third-world 'country'." At the height of the civil-rights movement," Ernesto Cortes, former Senior COPS organizer and recipient of a MacArthur "Genius" Award wrote, "It was not unusual to equate the repressive conditions under which the Mexicanos of South Texas lived to the situation of blacks in the Deep South. Racism and cultural repression reinforced an economic need to maintain a reactionary social and political framework for the state." Fast Forward to 2005, when one sees the level of political diversity, and ethnic harmony in San Antonio, folks, especially young people, may think this is the way it has always been. Without COPS intervention back in the early 70's, it is likely that the GGL or some other similar elitist organization might still be holding a socio-political, and economic monopoly in San Antonio. It is also highly likely that the dire economic and political conditions of the Mexican-American community in San Antonio might still be the same, or perhaps even worse, today as they were in the 60's. San Antonio, was virtually turned upside down socially, economically and politically. COPS indeed revolutionized San Antonio, and did so in a relatively peaceful, and harmonious fashion. Some of COPS major accomplishments are the following: 1) "COPS" notes Boyte, "shattered San Antonio's established conservative order," by helping to transform and reform the city electoral system in San Antonio. COPS was instrumental in changing the electoral process in San Antonio from an at-large to a single member district system. This vital change in the electoral process allowed City candidates to be elected from single member districts, and provided the opportunity for Mexican Americans to form a majority in the San Antonio City Council since 1977. 2) COPS managed to generate over one billion dollars in city/county, state, and federal public funds for capital and infrastructure improvements for the West and South sides of San Antonio. Along with a brand new community college in the Southside, COPS was instrumental in developing a host of projects including street paving, drainage systems, new housing and housing rehabilitation, public parks, health clinics, public libraries and other related urban improvements 3) By conducting city-wide voter registration drives, COPS helped elect Henry Cisneros, who in turn gained national prominence and visibility as the first Hispanic mayor of a major American city. 4) COPS was instrumental in the establishment of PROJECT QUEST, a nationally recognized job training and educational program, and a 2003 winner of The Enterprise Foundation and The J.P. Morgan Chase Foundation Award for Excellence in Workforce Development. PROJECT QUEST was also a winner of a 1995 Innovations Award from the Ford Foundation and the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. 5) Another one of COPS major achievements was their keen ability and acumen to hold politicians accountable and honest. For the past 30 years COPS has been the conscience of the San Antonio, and Bexar County electoral system. Through their civic vigilance, and rigorous accountability sessions, COPS has steadfastly worked to keep politicians honest, fair, and accountable to the voters. But the work is not done yet. There are still vital economic and employment issues, and challenges that need be addressed in San Antonio. In a 1999 Texas Observer editorial Louis Dubose, quotes Ernie Cortez, as follows,"Among the fifteen largest cities in the country, San Antonio has the second-highest number of people living below the poverty level. Half of those living below the poverty level are between the ages of eighteen and fifty-nine. And most are working: San Antonio's current unemployment rate is lower than 3.5 percent. Why are people working to remain poor?." This may be one of the reasons that education and job training have been central issues for the COPS organization. COPS has been instrumental in the establishment and development of a host of innovative and progressive educational and job training programs in San Antonio. According to Louis Dubose, on a 1999 Texas Observer editorial, COPS has been directly and indirectly responsible for the establishment of the following programs. 1) A city-wide after-school program that currently serves 34,000 students in San Antonio public schools; 2) An education partnership program that has provided college scholarships for 4,500 students and reduced the dropout rate; 3) A job-training program that has placed more than 1,000 workers in jobs that pay an average of $10.16 an hour; 4) A program in the city's Alliance Schools, which provides after-school programs, curriculum innovations, and counseling for students and their families. Perhaps San Antonio should join and rally with COPS to expand these programs, as well as develop new ones. The future of San Antonio may well depend on the quantity and quality of these educational and job training programs and how well these prepare the workforce to meet the challenges of an ever changing and increasingly complex, technical, and sophisticated economy. Margaret Mead once wrote, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it's the only thing that ever has." During the last 31 years, COPS/Metro Alliance, has indeed changed and transformed the world in San Antonio, and continues to work towards empowering the poor and the voiceless, as well as improving the social, educational, and economic conditions of all San Antonio citizens.